Grassroots language technology: Paul Raine, Apps4Efl

Grassroots language technology is about teachers and students developing digital tools to address classroom needs and situations. It is about the struggle with and resistance to funded commercial parties who are looking to provide their own services and promote their own interests. It is about little data over big data (after Gavin Dudeney1), teacher flexibility over algorithmic adaptivity, and community needs over corporate greed.

Last but not least it is an excuse to blog🙂

Paul Raine (@paul_sensei) developer of Apps4EFL kindly answered some questions about creating digital tools for use with students. This might turn into a series of such posts so if you are someone or know someone doing this kind of stuff do let me know.

1. Can you tell me a little about your background?

Paul: I was born and raised in the UK, studied Imaginative Writing and then Law at university, then took the CELTA and came to Japan to teach English in 2006. I’ve always been interested in programming and computers since a young age, and first started coding in BASIC, but I’ve never had any formal training or education in programming. After getting an MA in TEFL in 2012, I moved into university English teaching, and currently teach at three universities in the Tokyo area.

2. What was the first tool you developed for students?

Paul: I started with just a list of websites that I thought were useful for teachers and learners of English. However, the first “proper” web-app was Wiki Cloze. I wanted to develop a way for students to pedagogically engage with the vast range of Wikipedia articles, and telling them just to “read” Wikipedia wasn’t really working. They needed a more structured approach. Cloze creation is a relatively straight forward coding task, so this was my initial idea. It later expanded to include other study activities, such as quizzes and vocabulary matching.

3. How did you decide the tools to develop for Apps4EFL?

Paul: Most of the tools on Apps 4 EFL have been driven by freely available creative commons data. The amount of freely available English language learning data on the internet is incredible, but it’s not always served in a way that is easy to digest for learners themselves. So most of the apps have come out of finding a new source of creative commons data – Wikipedia articles for Wiki Cloze, the Tatoeba corpus for Sentence Builder, etc. Once I have acquired the data, I start working on the interface and try to make a game or activity that is engaging and intuitive as well as pedagogically effective.

4. How do you test your tools with students?

Paul: I start with a very basic prototype of the app and just let the students try it out on a limited basis. I fix bugs as and when they are spotted, and add features based on student feedback and my own observations in lessons. Once an app is stable, I open it up to the general public, and hopefully receive further feedback. Wiki Cloze has gone through the most development of all my apps as it has expanded quite a lot from my original idea, and development is still ongoing. Other apps have already reached a natural development plateau, and I hope they serve a useful purpose for what they are.

5. Do you have any new tools in the pipeline?

Paul: My latest app is called Quiz Vid, which is a way for both learners to take and teachers to easily create listening quizzes for any YouTube video. It’s still undergoing further development, but a basic version is available now. I have a couple more ideas lined up for this year. One will hopefully allow students to watch YouTube videos and “speak along”, i.e. say the same lines as the characters or actors in the video, and have their pronunciation checked by the computer. Another idea is an app for multi-path stories, again focusing on speaking. However, the web technologies involved are still very new, so browser compatibility may be limited at first.

6. How can teachers interested in developing their own tools get started?

Paul: I use HTML, PHP, CSS, and JavaScript to create my web-apps. There are a lot of good introductory books on these technologies, and for complete beginners the “The complete idiots guide to..” series may be a good starting point. Lynda.com also features a wide range of (commercial) video tutorials on these technologies, and a vast range of others. YouTube can also be an invaluable resource, as well as a good old-fashioned Google search. For individuals who have some experience with coding or scripting, Stack Overflow is the best place to go to improve your knowledge further, get coding questions answered, and find snippets of code for addressing specific problems.

7. To what extent, if any, would there be positive aspects for teachers to seriously consider developing their own digital tools?

Paul: This is a very important question, I think. For university level teachers, at least, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of academic recognition for developing these kind of tools. Old fashioned ink on paper research articles and books still seem to serve you better on your CV. Having said that, some ELT organizations (such as the British Council) are starting to recognize digital tools in their award programs.

Additionally, there has been a big shift recently toward “blended learning” in ELT curricula. Teachers are at least expected to know how to use existing digital tools, if not create them themselves. My motivation for becoming a creator rather than just a user of such tools was that I could get far more control over the tool, and make it do exactly what I want it to do. I also don’t have to worry about my students suddenly hitting a “pay wall”, which often happens with the other “freemium” or commercial tools out there.

Finally, I think the move toward digital tools over traditional ink and paper / chalk and talk pedagogy is only going to continue in the future. Tech know-how, from maintaining and administering an LMS, to actually creating your own applications, is going to become essential for all educators. Students born and raised with these technologies are going to expect their teachers to know how to exploit them effectively.

8. Do you know of any other teachers doing similar stuff i.e. small scale not commercially?

Paul: I have a few colleagues and acquaintances here in Japan who are involved in similar things. Oliver Rose is behind Phrase Maze, and a number of other language learning apps, several of which you can play for free online. Dr. Charles Browne is one of the minds behind the Online Graded Text Editor , a free web-based app which makes writing graded readers easier. Although I’m not sure if Oliver and Charles are involved in the actual coding of their apps, I do know that Charles Kelly is the main coder behind manythings.org, which features a vast array of free games and activities for language learners.

9. Anything else you would like to add?

Paul: I am always looking for collaboration opportunities, as well as feedback on the site and ideas or suggests for improvements. I hope the Apps 4 EFL user base continues to expand, and both teachers and learners of English across the world find it a useful resource.

Thanks for reading and a huge thanks to Paul and his digital tools.

References:

1. Gavin Dudeney, Of big data and little data

Update:

A nice interview of Paul over on the DML blog (which is very much worth checking for digital tools related writings and teaching).

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